1 – Three Days > Five Months: Seeds considered both too high and too low. Upset alerts. Burst bubbles, mid-Majors, blue bloods, paths to the Sweet 16, the Elite 8 and the Final Four, blah, blah, blah.
I didn’t think it was possible, but I’ve reached a saturation point with the week leading up to and especially the day of Selection Sunday. I just don’t care.
This coming Thursday through Sunday, however, is sport’s greatest theater, and for Irish fans, a potentially validating three-day tournament against Princeton and either West Virginia or Bucknell awaits.
(Of course, Notre Dame’s sterling 2017 season would need no such validation if the greatest tournament of all hadn’t made all but inconsequential (to fans) the sport’s regular season, but I digress…)
My off-the-cuff prediction: an unsightly Irish win by less than seven points (the listed point spread) over the Ivy League Champion Tigers in Round 1 and a much better performance – albeit in a heart-racing, last-minute victory – over the Mountaineers on Saturday.
Matt Farrell will be the hero of the latter as West Virginia attempts to press a great point guard that’s surrounded by players who’ll knock down shots in transition. And look for V.J. Beachem’s talent to shine in the first round as the Irish finally subdue Princeton to kick off the tournament’s festivities Thursday afternoon.
2 – Culture Shock: Irish head coach Mike Brey flashed across your television screen last Thursday night and game announcer Sean McDonough offered the following present-day truism:
“This is his time. It’s March!”
Imagine that statement exactly three years ago?
Consider that since March 12, 2015, the Irish have beaten Miami, Duke, North Carolina, Northeastern, Butler, Wichita State, Duke, Michigan, Stephen F. Austin, Wisconsin, Virginia, and Florida State – and lost to only undefeated Kentucky, eventual national runner-up North Carolina (twice), and potential 2017 Final Four squad Duke in that span.
Conversely, prior to March 12, 2015, Notre Dame’s last ELEVEN maddening March’s included NCAA Tournament wins over…Akron and George Mason.
Few possess more in-the-moment mojo than Mike Brey. Another run to the NCAA’s second weekend would go a long way to keeping it intact.
3 – More Plus-Minus Fun: For those that enjoyed last week’s Plus/Minus ACC Season totals, below is a review of how the squad’s nine contributors fared in ACC Tournament action. (A reminder: Plus/Minus measures how many points Notre Dame outscores/or is outscored by its opponent with a given player on the court. Games listed below represent Virginia, Florida State, and Duke, respectively.)
V.J. Beachem (Plus 24): +16, +6, and +2
Matt Farrell (Plus 21): +17, +8, minus 4
Bonzie Colson (Plus 13): +12, +2, minus 1
Matt Ryan (Plus 12): Minus 1, +6, +7
Steve Vasturia (Plus 10): +12, +8, minus 10
Ashton Gibbs (Minus 3): Minus 3, +3, minus 3
Austin Torres (Minus 3): Minus 1, +5, minus 7
Martinas Geben (Minus 6): 0, minus 5, minus 1
Rex Pflueger (Minus 13): +13, minus 13, minus 13
- Player the Irish can least afford a “Minus” game from this week: Steve Vasturia
- Two “Plus” efforts from this player nearly guarantees a Sweet 16 berth: T.J. Gibbs (attack the press, young man.)
- Most Minutes off the Bench vs. Princeton: Martin Geben
- Most Minutes off the Bench vs. West Virginia: T.J. Gibbs
4 – The Lost Art: Many modern basketball players – at least those not blessed with the ability to jump over everyone and dunk at full speed – resemble drunken hobos trying to lead a 3-on-2 fast break.
Then there’s Matt Farrell.
Farrell is not only a human highlight reel when executing 2-on-1 advantage breaks (deftly leaving the ball for teammates and an ensuing dunk as he sucks the lone defender in) but trustworthy decision maker and pinpoint passer when running the more vexing 3-on-2 and 4-on-2 situations.
Should they meet in Round 1, West Virginia’s frenzied pressure vs. Farrell in the open floor will be worth the price of admission Saturday in Buffalo.
5 – Quote of the Weekend: At the 6:46 mark of the first half during Notre Dame’s 77-73 semifinal win over Florida State, Austin Torres was fouled heading into a media timeout.
A text from one of my college roommates popped onto my screen. It read: “If he makes both, I’ll buy your bracket entries this year.”
Torres split the pair (hitting the first) to bring his season total to 33.3% (6-for-18) and career mark to (17-for-38). His inadequacies from that vexing line 15 feet away remains a potential, heretofore completely avoidable problem this weekend and perhaps next.
(And if you think publishing this personal exchange is a tad on the harsh side, remember: any senior can practice shooting free throws during his lifetime and improve exponentially if dedicated to that pursuit.
Seniors in high school, seniors in college, senior citizens…all of us.
6 – Contractual Obligation Met: Notre Dame’s football team – they’re also really good in March – has the week off for spring break, but I feel an obligation to discuss them in this space.
Here are the five most physically impressive players I saw during our 45-minutes of Practice No. 1 last week:
- Freshman: Brock Wright. And he might be on here even if he wasn’t a freshman.
- Sophomore: Chase Claypool. Guys that big shouldn’t run that fast.
- Junior: Brandon Wimbush…Howitzer.
- Senior: Nick Watkins…Wonder if he plays basketball, because he’d wreak havoc as a zone defender in the passing lanes.
(The offensive linemen were too far away to monitor from my balcony perch.)
7 – Confidence Rankings: Not a player ranking, mind you, but rather my own level of confidence that each member of the rotation will play at or above his expected level this week:
1st – Matt Farrell: I don’t see a letdown game for the dynamic ball-handler and playmaker. He’s quicker than most of the Tigers and will respond to the 94-foot challenge posed by the Mountaineers.
2nd – Bonzie Colson: Has he ever failed to respond? This is merely a bump down from first to second because of his ankle sprain suffered Saturday night in Brooklyn.
3rd – V.J. Beachem: Mr. March…at least last March and so far this season.
4th – Steve Vasturia: Grit (hey, a football reference!), experience, and a champion’s mind can overcome dead legs.
5th – Rex Pflueger: Minus 13s (twice) in the ACC Tournament notwithstanding, I thought Pflueger improved last week and should enter this weekend at peak confidence. He’s also been here before.
6th – Matt Ryan: I’d place him fourth offensively and somewhere between last and VanGorder last on the defensive end. But he’ll put the biscuit in the basket on Thursday…
7th – T.J. Gibbs: Did not look as aggressive as usual against Florida State or Duke. Perfectly capable of a bounce back effort.
8th – Austin Torres: Charity stripe aside, Torres should be able to run and hit Tigers and Mountaineers alike.
9th – Martinas Geben: Appears to have his confidence back but can’t catch a break from the officials (ticky-tack fouls follow him everywhere he goes) and that seems to erode his aggressiveness thereafter.
Geben, however, is capable of being No. 6 or 7 on this list by Saturday night. I wouldn’t have thought that possible prior to his reemergence in the season finale at Louisville.
8 – Sweet Sixteen: The Top 8 seeds you want to avoid – and those you wouldn’t necessarily mind so much…
- Villanova (#1): Like Notre Dame, only with more athletes and a championship rather than Elite 8 pedigree.
- Duke (#2): Incredible, but Luke Kennard is now their second best player.
- UCLA (#3): Most likely to hang a hundred…
- Butler (#4): Because you never want to face Butler…
- Notre Dame (#5): Because as of 2015, you never want to face Notre Dame…
- SMU (#6): Because small-ball is no fun to defend if your big men aren’t really good.
- Michigan (#7): On. A. Roll. And John Beilein is a tournament coach.
- Miami (#8): Nice mix of youth, experience, athleticism, defense, and another seasoned tournament sage in Jim Larrañaga.
It Could Be Worse:
- Gonzaga (#1): Have you seen the other No. 1s? North Carolina might be vulnerable, but not when they’re on their A Game, and Theo Pinson puts them on their A Game.
- Louisville (#2): By default. Arizona, Kentucky, and Duke are scary good at times.
- Florida State (#3): They appear to lack polish. And guidance. And concentration…
- Florida (#4): I just assume you agree…
- Virginia (#5): “You’re going the wrong way!” (“How would he know where we’re going?”)
- Maryland (#6): To be fair, I’ve never seen them play. And that was by choice.
- South Carolina (#7): Apparently they’re very good defensively. Who knew!
- Northwestern (#8): Fun story though.
9 – Winning Time? A healthy dose of Irish Illustrated subscribers have correctly pointed out that football games aren’t won in the off-season.
But Notre Dame 2016 lost multiple games last fall due directly to decisions it made – or more accurately, did not make – last offseason. Shouldn’t the opposite potentially hold true for 2017 as a result of the correct decisions and hard work to that end at the present?
The groundwork has been laid, friends, but admittedly the heavy lifting has not yet begun.
Until next week, Irish fans…